SUNRISE — Matthew Tkachuk gave the Florida Panthers everything he could during their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
After fracturing his sternum in the first period of Game 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Tkachuk returned to the game and ended up scoring the game-tying goal late in the third before assisting on the overtime winner by Carter Verhaeghe.
That night was a sleepless one for Tkachuk.
The following morning, Tkachuk struggled getting out of bed, needing assistance from his younger brother Brady — the captain of the Ottawa Senators who was crashing at his Fort Lauderdale home.
Even still, despite needing help getting dressed, needing help putting on his equipment and needing help tying his skates, Matthew Tkachuk played for the Panthers in Game 4.
Tkachuk ended up playing 16:40 in Game 4 and had a number of scoring chances in the final minute.
“Everybody played a huge part in getting me to play that game,” Tkachuk said on Thursday morning, the Panthers’ final day at FLA Live Arena before breaking for the summer.
”My brother was staying with me at the time and had to get me in and out of bed, to get me dressed to come to the rink. I had guys tying my skates and helping me put on my jersey, so I was happy I was able to attempt to play that game.
”But I wasn’t myself.”
Tkachuk did what he could — getting into the dirty areas, creating scoring chances and registering shots on goal — but the injury kept him from competing away from the puck.
He had to shy away from contact with the injury, not registering a single hit in Game 4.
It got to the point where Panthers coach Paul Maurice had to sit him for much of the first 15 minutes of the third period.
“Matthew has been a grinder his whole life and he was one again tonight,” Maurice said after Florida’s Game 4 loss, a 3-2 decision which put the Panthers in a 3-1 hole.
“We were just hoping to get into a situation where we could use what he had to give us. We hoped we got on the power play a little bit earlier and certainly at the end of the game.”
Although Tkachuk traveled with the team to Las Vegas for Game 5, it was apparent he would not be able to play.
The Panthers would have to go on without him — and it was tough for him to make the call not to play.
Tkachuk had come up big time and time again for the Panthers — finishing fifth in points during the regular season with 108, adding 24 more in the playoffs — but he knew he could not go.
Tkachuk, after laboring through the injury in Game 4, knew the Panthers could not afford to have him play limited minutes and in limited situations in a win-or-go-home Game 5.
He made the conscious effort to sit out in favor of a rested and healthy Grigori Denisenko while waiting and seeing if the pain would subdue if Florida could get to a Game 7.
”I knew I wasn’t myself,” Tkachuk said. “It is hard to play when there are 12 better options than me. It was basically at that point.
“But I can hold my head high knowing I did everything possible to try to play.”
That Game 7 never happened, obviously, as Florida got walloped 9-3 by the Golden Knights, giving them their first Stanley Cup in their six-year franchise history.
”The mental part of that killed him,” Maurice told TNT’s Jackie Redmond minutes after the Game 5 loss.
“One of the things about him is that he is an incredibly bright young man so he could assess his own game. The hope was that if we could get him five days of rest, there was a chance for Game 7.
“He scored the game-tying goal after fracturing the bone, net-front, then you could see him in Game 4 trying to find a way to play with a broken bone. He had three of the best chances to score but clearly, he also knew the other four guys on the ice needed a guy who could do other things so he accepted it and he understood it.”
Tkachuk had adrenaline on his side when he returned from the initial hit from Keegan Kolesar which fractured his sternum, allowing him to score the game-tying goal and assist on the winner, but once he woke up the next morning, all that juice was gone.
He had to fight through the pain and it got to a point where he could not do it anymore.
”When you get something like that, you can get through that game with all of the adrenaline,” Tkachuk said.
”The last thing you want to do is be told that you can’t play then when you wake up the next day, that’s where it sinks in. That’s where it feels the worst.”
Tkachuk is just one of a long list of Panthers players who played through injury in order to keep Florida’s historic run alive.
Aaron Ekblad played through a torn oblique, two dislocated shoulders and a broken foot dating back to Game 2 of the first round.
Radko Gudas suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the Stanley Cup Final — which usually has a six-week recovery time — and only missed a period.
Eetu Luostarinen tried all he could to return from a broken tibia he suffered in the last game of the Eastern Conference final, skating on it in practices multiple times.
There is a high price to pay when competing for a Stanley Cup and Tkachuk & Co. knew they had to pay it.
”It just shows how badly we wanted it, which makes it that much harder now,” Tkachuk said.
”There are so many things throughout the season that it’s just such a grind to get to where we are are.”
Tkachuk’s injury is not expected to affect him next season.
Maurice said that while Tkachuk is likely to not need surgery, he will not be able to do upper-body work for four-to-six weeks.
He will be able to begin rehabbing the injury in late July and is expected to be a full participant in training camp come September.
“It was such an unbelievable season to be a part of for my first one down here,’’ Tkachuk said.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK